State of the Union January/February 2007

Reading, Writing, Resurrection

Hurricane Katrina destroyed one of America’s worst school systems and made New Orleans the nation’s laboratory for educational reform. But can determined educators and entrepreneurs transcend the damage of the flood—and of history?
A classroom at Louis Armstrong Elementary School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, November 20, 2006. (Photograph by David Deal.)

In the summer of 2006, the New Orleans landscape came to include, along with blue tarps and white trailers, moldering ruins and overgrown lawns, and We’re Home and For Sale signs (sometimes on the same house), a series of placards promoting new schools. The signs, planted along the grassy medians of boulevards like St. Charles and St. Claude, bore a less obvious connection to Hurricane Katrina than those offering mold removal or “hurricane attorneys.” But they were every bit as much Katrina’s doing.

The storm ravaged the city’s architecture and infrastructure, took hundreds of lives, exiled hundreds of thousands of residents. But it also destroyed, or enabled the destruction of, the city’s public-school system—an outcome many New Orleanians saw as deliverance. That system had begun with great promise, in 1841, as one of the first in the Deep South. It had effectively ended, in 2005, in disaster—and not just the natural kind. Its defining characteristics were financial high jinks and low academic performance. On the last state achievement test before Katrina hit, 74 percent of eighth-graders had failed to demonstrate “basic” skills in English/Language Arts, and 70 percent scored below “basic” in math. The Orleans Parish School Board, which ran the city’s schools, was $450 million in debt. Yet these numbers did not begin to capture the day-to-day texture of the schools: when students held a press conference to express their post-Katrina wishes, they asked for textbooks, toilet paper, and teachers who liked them.

The floodwaters, so the talk went, had washed this befouled slate clean—had offered, in a state official’s words, a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent public education.” In due course, that opportunity was taken: three months after Katrina, the state legislature deemed 107 of the 128 city-run public schools “failing” and seized control of them for five years. (Before the storm the state had already placed five failing schools in what it called the Recovery School District, then converted them to charter schools.) Stripped of most of its domain and financing, the Orleans Parish School Board fired all 7,500 of its teachers and support staff, effectively breaking the teachers’ union. And the Bush administration stepped in with millions of dollars for the expansion of charter schools—publicly financed but independently run schools that answer to their own boards. The result was the fastest makeover of an urban school system in American history—and a patchwork nonsystem of bewildering complexity and bewitching promise.

In the fall of 2006, estimates placed the city’s population at less than half its pre-Katrina number of about 455,000, and fifty-three public schools were slated to open. Of those, the Orleans Parish School Board would be running just five—schools that had not been taken over because they weren’t failing. The Louisiana Department of Education, which had never before run schools, would reconstitute and run seventeen under the Recovery School District. The rest—thirty-one in total—would be charter schools, either started from scratch or converted from existing public schools, and authorized by either the state or the city. New Orleans, barely a presence in the charter-school movement before the storm, now had a higher proportion of charter schools than any other American city—and unlike most of the country’s 4,000 such schools, these had the backing of the establishment. Most radical of all, the neighborhood school had been banished—parents would have total freedom to choose which school their children would attend, no matter where they lived. Introducing school choice and weakening teachers’ unions had both long been goals of many educational reformers. Circumstance had made New Orleans the laboratory for these ideas. Ben Kleban, a charter-school proponent drawn to New Orleans by this flourishing, called it “the biggest experiment in a system of schools of choice we’ve ever seen.” Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state school board, called it “the most market-driven system in the United States.”

Climatic torpor drapes New Orleans in August, and nearly a year after Katrina, the city’s stalled recovery seemed to add a spiritual malaise. Amid the stagnation, a singular energy gripped education. Charter-school boards raced to learn the nuts and bolts of operation, since they, not a centralized district headquarters, would have to shoulder everything from budgeting to food service. Contractors worked to repair school buildings, if not always at the desired pace. The Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street became a pedagogical bazaar, with professional- development workshops on floor after floor. Members of the “movement,” as charter-school proponents call themselves, flooded into New Orleans to help its nascent schools, as did idealistic young teachers. Educational publishers came to peddle reading and math programs for urban students. There was an openness, a sense of possibility, heightened by the abstraction of still-absent children.

The schools that were taking shape would bear, far more than those in a traditional system, the imprimaturs of their creators: each school’s driving force sought to apply his or her own beliefs, experiences, and ideas of how to make public education work. Some were outsiders who thought they could save New Orleans not just from Katrina but from itself. Others were locals, with personal or ideological investments in the city’s education system. Their success or failure would not be known for several years, but the decisions being made in the summer and fall of 2006 would long reverberate. So would a still-unanswered question: Can you rebuild a school system when you haven’t decided whether to rebuild a city?

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Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.

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